With a practiced flourish, Roland Mesnier adds the finishing touch of fresh raspberries to a sumptuous concoction he’s just prepared in his kitchen. Dubbed the Floating Heart, this light-as-air white meringue heart nestled in a pool of raspberry sauce is the perfect Valentine’s Day dessert. Despite having appeared on a White House menu, it is simple to prepare—yet, watching the man who has created desserts for the world’s most famous dignitaries, his guests can’t help but applaud.
After 26 years in the White House (the longest tenure of any pastry chef in White House history), the French-born Mesnier is used to the spotlight. He has rubbed elbows with five Presidents (from Carter to Bush, Jr.), met the challenges and idiosyncracies of each First Lady—and enjoyed every minute of it. Now ostensibly retired, he remains constantly in motion; in fact, he’ll be in China this winter, publicizing his newest book, A Sweet World of White House Desserts. This coffee table volume, to be published in early 2011, describes the most memorable desserts Mesnier prepared for state dinners with lively anecdotes about each occasion. He has already written two cookbooks and a memoir, hosts replica state dinners, conducts speaking tours and classes—and this year created the prized gingerbread house for Mount Vernon’s Christmas celebration.
But even the high-energy Mesnier needs to recharge his batteries, which is what drew him and wife Martha to their five-acre spread in Fairfax Station, Virginia. The couple, who have a grown son, moved into their sprawling, mid-century house with its picturesque courtyard entry in 1993 after nearly a year-long search for just the right property. “We wanted to relocate, to find something in the country because of the pressure of the White House,” Mesnier explains. “I needed a retreat.” He adds, “This house has a very special look. And talk about lowering your blood pressure!”
Mesnier and his wife have filled their home with antiques, pictures and mementoes of life in the White House. Colorful stained-glass lamps punctuate the space, and a coffee table in the living room sports a marble surface that was once part of an exterior wall of the Kennedy Center. “We collect things that have meaning and that work well for us,” he says. “We buy what we love.”
Although Mesnier is no longer concocting his remarkable desserts at the White House, he still loves to entertain. “I call this the party house,” he says of their home, which offers spacious rooms and a sweeping lawn bordered by woods. “We used to do a huge Christmas party for the White House staff, 50 to 60 people. I still entertain like that. I love to spend time in the kitchen. My wife is a terrific cook and everything we do is from scratch. We don’t believe in caterers!”
It was Rosalynn Carter who first lured the pastry chef to the White House in 1976—though she had to ask several times before Mesnier, then happily ensconced at The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, finally agreed. “I didn’t want the job but Rosalynn Carter was such a delightful person, she made me change my mind,” he recalls.
The White House position turned out to be the perfect fit for Mesnier, who brought to his work a formality and elegance well suited to the iconic setting. Over the years, he added separate pastry and chocolate kitchens, and worked closely with each First Lady. “Rarely did the Presidents get involved,” he says, “although they all were fascinated by the sugar decoration. President Clinton would bring guests in the middle of the night to the pastry kitchen to see the blown sugar desserts on display.”
According to Mesnier, working for Nancy Reagan presented the greatest challenge—but was also most fulfilling. She approved each dessert and more than once sent Mesnier and staff back to the drawing board. “Mrs. Reagan was a perfectionist to the core,” Mesnier says. “She gave me the challenges that made me what I am.”
While each first couple was different, initially they all professed to have no taste for sweets. “Then they started seeing and tasting what we produced and became very excited,” Mesnier says. “There was not a meal without dessert—that did not exist. And I was known for never making the same dessert twice.”
Mesnier found George Bush, Sr., “a pleasure to feed. He was one of the few Presidents who wanted to taste everything.” Hillary and Bill Clinton loved to entertain. “A thousand people for them was just nothing,” Mesnier recalls. Both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush were straightforward, unadventurous eaters; Mesnier describes a dessert he made for George W. Bush called Tumbleweed, out of spun sugar and honey ice cream. “He just loved it,” the chef remembers.
The proceeds from Mesnier’s newest book will go to preserving and restoring the White House—as Mesnier explains it, “to say thank you to the American people for welcoming me into their country and to the White House for 26 wonderful years.” He adds, “I love the White House. To me, it is a sacred place.”
Adapted from Dessert University by Roland Mesnier
8 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup plus 11/2 tbsp sugar
2 cups Raspberry Sauce (see below)
Whip egg whites on high until white and fluffy, then slowly pour in sugar, whipping until meringue holds stiff peaks. Cut out a round piece of parchment and grease with vegetable shortening. Simmer 3 to 4 inches of water in a large sauté pan. Fill a pastry bag with a #8 or #9 plain tip halfway with meringue. Form hearts by piping two 3-inch teardrops side by side on greased parchment. Place parchment on surface of water; the hearts should just slide off. Simmer, covered, for 45 seconds. Lift hearts from water with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Pour raspberry sauce onto a shallow platter. Use a slotted spatula to float meringues on sauce. Arrange strawberry slices around rim of platter and decorate with mint leaves. Makes 16 to 20 hearts.
1 1/2 pounds fresh raspberries or two 12-oz bags frozen raspberries, thawed
1/2 cup sugar
Blend raspberries and sugar until smooth. Push the mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.
Photographer Bob Narod is based in Herndon, Virginia.